A Meaningful Story Beautifully Told

Is there anything quite as satisfying as discovering a new favourite author? I’m hard-pressed to name what it might be. Maybe getting a piece of the recently awarded Mega Millions lottery comes close.

I devoured and was satiated by Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.  There is not a single extraneous word in this masterful work. At just under 200 pages it is a swift but densely packed read. The sentences are simple but the premise is complex and multi-layered.

The back cover promises: “At once earthy and transcendent, the novel explores the boundaries and limits of friendship between two strong women: Nicola, who is receiving controversial treatment for late-stage cancer, and Helen, who becomes her nurse, her guardian angel, and her stony judge.  The Spare Room tells an unforgettable story full of complex humour and compassion.”

Better yet, it delivers.

It is thought provoking and harsh. It confronts life and death. It bristles with anger yet throbs with tenderness. The big question for me: what sort of patient or caregiver would I be if life dealt these cards?

Aside from the unforgettable characters and heartbreaking story there is more. For writers who are still trying to find their voices or those of us struggling to distill our message, there are lessons here. Garner teaches by example. We see complex themes, memorable characters, rich imagery and a strong plot addressed with short, concise sentences. We can see little Bessie in her flamenco outfit; smell the sodden mattress; feel outrage at the quackery; share the weariness Helen feels.

We too can find the discipline to tighten our writing and keep our eye on the goal: a meaningful story beautifully told.

Visit the publisher’s website for a downloadable reading guide and this one for an audio clip of the author discussing the book.

Happy Birthday Baby

Last October as I cleared my schedule and readied my spirit to attempt the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, I was full of hope. I thought it could provide the kick-start I needed to adopt, at long last, a sustainable daily writing practice. I thought it was the momentum I needed to get on with a stalled second novel. I thought the adrenaline rush of starting and finishing the crazy thing would sustain me through the oh-so-mundane-real-life BS that defeats so many creative people.

I was wrong.

December came and went with the usual pre and post-holiday hoopla. It didn’t help that I started a part-time job November 29th. The job was such a poor fit that I resigned in late January simply to save myself. Pushing a boulder up a hill is thankless, deadly work.

I could blame the more than two months of contract work I did on a tourism publication for swallowing up my hours and lucidity. I could point to a big event I’m now coordinating for taking away my focus. But that would be short-sighted. After all, a girl’s gotta eat. These gigs that allow me to work alone from a home office doing work I’m good at are too few and far between to complain about.

A two week family holiday in Palm Springs in February should have renewed me. And it did. But it also broke my resolve to Tweet daily, blog weekly, and write a thousand words each day.

So, today, on my birthday, I begin again. I could wax poetic about the metaphor of re-birth, fresh starts, new beginnings.                                 

Blah, blah, blah.

Or I could just put my money where my mouth is.

S#*t happens: to some of us more than others; more often than others.

What I need is some tough love. Why am I willing to start early and work late for others without eating, blinking or peeing? Why am I willing to do whatever it takes for OPPs (other people’s projects) whether it’s paid, volunteer or family work? I need to (re)set my goals and promise to work as hard for myself as I do for others.

I need to re-evaluate what’s really important to me in the big picture. And why. I need to decide if the price of obtaining it is something I’m willing to pay. I need to walk the talk and get some congruency back in my life.

Starting now, the navel-gazing ends and the action begins.

What a gift. Happy Birthday Baby.

Is there Life after NaNoWriMo?

Did you take part in the 2011 National Novel Writing Month? If so, what have you done with your draft?

If you’re like me, the 50,000 plus words are exactly where you left them in late November: safe and sound on a zip drive or in an email attachment to yourself.

And that’s a good thing.

A cooling off period, a distancing of ourselves from our creation is vital to get perspective. With fresh eyes comes insight.

Being busy, burned out and getting through December made it easy to ignore. Until now.

The time is here, I fear, to print the darn thing and read it. To see if there’s anything worth salvaging, worth building on. Or if the whole exercise was wasted effort.

While the manuscript and I have been chillin’ I read a book on editing. Even though my copy is dated (1993) Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print is still a good, solid resource. Authors Renni Browne and Dave King illustrate their point with real examples. Each chapter ends with a checklist of suggestions/questions to apply to one’s own writing and an exercise to test your new skill. No peeking at the Appendix for the answers!

Here is my takeaway from each chapter:

  • Show and Tell
    • Find the balance between scenes and narrative summary
    • Are you describing emotion rather than showing it through action?
  • Characterization and Exposition
    • Do you hit the reader (and stop the flow of the story) with a complete character description through summary, lecture, inner dialogue and flashbacks when the character first appears?
    • Let action, reaction and dialogue introduce characters bit by bit.
  • Point of View
    • Choose first person for intimacy and if your viewpoint character can hold a reader’s interest for hundreds of pages
    • Choose third person for a mix of intimacy and perspective
    • Keep POV consistent within each scene
  • Dialogue Mechanics
    • Don’t patronize the reader by explaining dialogue
    • Cut almost all -LY adverbs (happily, glumly, loudly, et cetera) because they weaken the dialogue
    • Use “said” almost all the time for transparent speaker attributions
    • Use dashes—to show interruptions and ellipses….to show the speaker trailing off
  • See How it Sounds
    • Use contractions, shorter simpler words, sentence fragments, and run on sentences to make the dialogue feel more informal and real
    • Let characters lie, disagree, avoid questions, cross talk, misspeak, interrupt
    • Read dialogue aloud to check on rhythm, style and vocabulary. If all your characters sound the same you’ve got a problem
    • Think twice if using dialect; try to get the effect through word choice, grammar and cadence
  • Interior Monologue
    • Reveals unexpressed thoughts, discloses information and exposes personality
    • Use it sparingly; don’t use quotes
    • Avoid long passages
  • Easy Beats
    • Defined as little bits of action (usually involving physical gestures) interspersed through a scene
    • Can increase tension or create breathing space
  • Breaking Up is Easy to Do
    • Check your manuscript’s white space
    • Avoid large clunky paragraphs and overly long scenes
    • Don’t let your characters make speeches; let them interrupt or be interrupted
  • Once is Usually Enough
    • Watch for repetition in words, chapters, and even in book themes
    • Are too many characters serving the same purpose?
    • Is your villain so over-the-top as to be unbelievable?
  • Proportion
    • Don’t spend too much time and effort on a minor point
    • Don’t include too much on your favourite subjects or to show off your research
    • Are there too many flashbacks?
    • Is the amount of space a character gets proportionate to their role in the story?
    • Don’t spend too much time moving characters around or describing their every action
  • Sophistication
    • Avoid clichés
    • Avoid a weak verb and an adverb; strengthen your verbs
    • Beware of emphasis quotes and exclamation points
    • Avoid flowery figures of speech
    • Subtle handling of sex scenes leaves something to the reader’s imagination
    • Have you overdone the profanity?
  • Voice
    • Develop a strong distinctive voice by concentrating on your characters and your story
    • When editing notice the parts that sing and the parts that make you cringe
    • Check for the obvious; flatness; abstraction; vagueness; strained, forced or awkward sections

Rounding out the book is a Reading List which names some of the classics of the time. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web: Lawrence Block on Writing Fiction are two of three Block titles. Other favourites include Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers and Elaine Hughes’ Writing from the Inner Self.

Classics are just that, classic, because the message is timeless. Rereading them will reveal that the message is the same but perhaps the reader has changed.

And soon, very soon I’ll have a look at what NaNoWriMo produced.

Just Say NO to Resolutions

In 2012 I’m chucking the idea of making resolutions in favour of simply stating my intentions. Call me crazy but I think the word intentions sounds more, well, intentional, mindful, deliberate. Resolutions reek of failure and ridicule and all the psychological scarring that implies.

My biggest writing-related intention is to ramp up my efforts in productivity aka pages/projects completed. Second is increasing my social media efforts (Tweeting, blogging, commenting) so someone (anyone, please God) in the world besides me knows what I’m doing : )

I used to believe that paper was the only way to go. Marking my progress with stickers or checkmarks seems juvenile but is surprisingly satisfying. The NaNoWriMo word counter and graph reinforced my need to “see” how I’m doing on my journey to completion. I wasted a good chunk of time today searching online for a writer-specific, paper version To-Do list that would meet my needs. I toyed with the idea of designing one of my own. But I also know the folly of reinventing the wheel.

I considered buying a Writer’s Planner through Amazon until I read the two comments. I thought about adding my recurring goals to my Brownline daily planner but that’s a helluva lot of work. I still might choose to record my activity in the month-at-a-glance planner I bought at Dollarama. It would allow me to see the big (monthly) picture.

Then in a moment of insight I turned to Elizabeth Spann Craig’s brilliant search engine Writers Knowledge Base. That simple act led me to a 2010 blog post on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site which led me to five options for free To-Do list tracking tools. Now my dilemma is deciding between TeuxDeux, Remember the Milk and Todoist. The other two are too simple and too complex for my needs.

For some projects creating a Google Docs or Excel spreadsheet will be the answer.

Now my challenge is to use the tools to advance my goals and not let them become a make-work project of their own. This year’s mantra is Progress, not Perfection.

I Did It!

WooHoo! Just completed (that means WON!) my first ever NaNoWriMo challenge with three days to spare.

I’m incredibly proud of my efforts; especially the fact that I wrote every single day for 27 straight days. The resulting product is not brilliant nor is it crap. It’s simply 50,336 words of a rough first draft. Any problems with it are fixable. Nora Roberts said, “The only thing you can’t fix is a blank page.”

I suspect that this experience has forever changed me as a writer and a person. But I will need hindsight and some future time to know for sure.

In the meantime I will savour the win.

I’ve learned a few things this month:

  • I’m fresher and the writing is easier for me early in the day.
  • I can make choices to put writing first every day instead of waiting for the planets to be aligned.
  • The NaNoWriMo stat counter was inordinately important to me. I suspect it is part of the reason I finished. I only updated my daily word count after the day’s writing was complete. I kept two hand-written records of my daily output; one was on the back side of my character fact sheet, the other in my daily planner. Some days, when the writing was difficult, I spent more time calculating my word count than simply writing.

         This visual milestone marker is so important to me that I plan to design a form to                track my writing output from now on.

  • There is something to be said for simply writing with abandon; to not giving a damn about the preciousness of the idea or the words. It shuts that Inner Critic up for a change.
  • There’s good karma created when you donate to the work of NaNoWriMo.
  • It is almost anti-climactic to finish. Because I wrote alone with only the NaNoWriMo pep talks and Edmonton group emails for inspiration I need to be content with the warm inner glow of satisfaction I feel.
  • That being said, the novel is not complete and much work lies ahead if it is ever to see the light of day. I intend to give it a month to incubate and cool before I read it and begin the next steps.
  • There is absolutely NO down-side to taking the challenge and many potential benefits.
  • Kudos to anyone taking on this challenge. But there should be meritorious badges for those with a full-time job or children.
  • Only 13 months 4 days (Leap Year, don’t cha know) until the next one.

 

NaNoWriMo Day 13: Notes from the Front

With the halfway mark of the NaNoWriMo month just two days away, I am surfacing to post a report from the front. Here, in no particular order, are some first-timer observations:

  • The heady thrill of consistently laying down words does fade with time. Chris Baty predicted it would happen and it has. As always I thought I’d be the notable exception. I guess after thirteen years he knows whereof he speaks.
  • While leaving my desk to fold laundry or get a snack can be construed as procrastination often that brief change of scenery supplies the elusive next word.
  • One day as I sat looking heavenward for my next sentence I noticed dust clinging to the blades of the ceiling fan that keeps my office bearable in summer.  To my everlasting credit I did NOT jump up and clean it which just goes to show I’d rather do anything than clean.
  • When the switch back from Daylight Savings Time gave me a killer headache I tried to bravely soldier on. I managed to get 2953 words done that day with the help of Buckley’s Cold and Sinus gel capsules. Martyr no more!
  • Each day I start my day’s writing with a highlighted D and a number representing the day of the month. Today is D13. It shows my output on any given day. My hypothesis is that each day’s writing starts out stilted but as I warm up it gets more pliable and palatable. Useful information for some post-NaNoWriMo analysis perhaps?
  • My lousiest day’s output was a measly 284 words. It’s clear to me that a few consecutive days of low word counts would discourage this soul and seriously erode my resolve.
  • It would be so easy to quit and blame life’s curve balls but so far I’m staying strong.
  • I’m shocked (and somewhat ashamed) to admit how much my NaNo stats tab means to me.  As of today I’m at 26,431 words. My average daily total is 2033 and at this rate I would be done by November 24th. I need write only 1310 words a day to finish on time and 2142 to finish on the 24th. Day one was my best output with a total of 3792 words. It’s not hard to see what damage two low days (778 and 284) can do to an otherwise stellar effort.
  • I am slowly running out of steam. Or is that plot?
  • I don’t seem capable of crazy plot twists but today I did throw a guy under the bus so maybe there’s hope.
  • Reading blogs, updating my site and Tweeting have been sacrificed for the greater good of finishing this damn thing. The things a person will do (and give up!) for bragging rights, a NaNoWriMo patch and a jump start on the next book.

Day One of NaNo: Admitted I was Powerless Over…

It’s late afternoon, mountain standard time, on Day One and time for my first report from the NaNo trenches. I’ve had a successful first day and wonder if it’s because I:

  • Lit scented candles as a act of unity with fellow writers on the NaNo adventure
  • Iced my aching forearms last night to help my tendonitis and prep for a day of hectic typing
  • Use a wireless and ergonomic keyboard and mouse to make my laptop less hazardous to my health
  • Typed the names of my main characters into Auto Correct to save keystrokes and time
  • Have iTunes playing a random selection of music from Adele to Andrea Bocelli, from Doc Walker to Pachebel’s Canon in D
  • Took unscheduled breaks to pee, play Words with Friends on my iPhone, check email, drink cups of hot water (don’t ask), eat snacks, stretch and walk around
  • Stopped in mid-sentence or mid-scene so picking up the thread of the story was easier when I returned
  • Stood at the kitchen counter in mid-afternoon to do some more planning and give my sore butt a change of scenery
  • Admitted I was powerless over ignoring misspellings and grammar booboos.
  • Was on a roll and wrote 3792 words which will help me when I take most of tomorrow off to visit the dentist

 Can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow!

Writing is Not an Aerobic Activity

Writing is not an aerobic activity. And neither is reading. There, I said it. In the time honoured tradition of great chicken-egg questions, I pose the following: did some of us choose sedentary pastimes like reading and writing because we don’t have an athletic bone in our bodies OR are we lacking the said athletic bodies because we chose reading and writing instead of breaking a sweat? I suspect it’s a bit of both.

Which brings me to my point—and I do have one (apologies to Ellen). My lower back has been bugging me for the past couple of days and NaNoWriMo hasn’t even started yet. It got me thinking that in all my preparation for the month I’ve neglected to think about the toll this will take on my body.

Sooooo, as a public service to you and a reminder to me, here are 5 more areas to consider whether we tackle NaNo or not.

EXERCISE

As already mentioned this is not an activity many of us naturally gravitate to so some incentive (perhaps coercion) is required. Humans act for one of two reasons: to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. I just took a 30 minute walk because I knew it would make me and my back feel better. The pain of the backache was greater than the pain of leaving my comfy chair and heading out so I did. Or put another way, the pleasure of righteous bragging about having exercised is greater than the pleasure of sloth.

The decision to go for a walk was made easier because it was a gorgeous, sunny 9 ° Celsius Sunday afternoon. Would I have struck out down our country road if it was -9 with a 30 kilometre wind? Nope.

We’re all well aware of the benefits of walking and other exercise so I’ll skip that part and go straight to the promise. Let’s make a pact to cut the tether from our computer (or La-Z Boy) for a few minutes of exercise and stretching each day. That heart-pumping break will:

  • rejuvenate and re-energize us
  • save us from a long and painful death from a debilitating disease (perhaps I exaggerate)
  • recharge our depleted brains and provide creative solutions to writing dilemmas

EYESTRAIN

When enthralled with a project it’s easy to forget to blink. In the interests of eye health and to prevent CVS (computer vision syndrome) read the following 10 tips for relief. It can be as simple as remembering to blink and take breaks.

In dry climates using sterile eye drops or artificial tears can bring cooling relief to dry, itchy painful eyes.

REPETITIVE STRAIN INJURY (RSI)

It is far easier in my experience to prevent an RSI than it is to treat it. RSI is an injury to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems caused by repetition, awkward positions, heavy lifting, contact stress, and static postures. While it can affect many parts of the body, writers are most likely to suffer from pain, numbness, and weakness in the upper forearm, a condition known as tendonitis. Check here for more information.

When the tendonitis in both my arms was at its worst, I was seeing a physical therapist, massage therapist, and chiropractor; doing exercises; applying ice; resting them and wearing braces. Although it is years later, symptoms are just a breath away. Prolonged typing, driving, even holding a book can and do bring the pain flooding back. You can be sure I will be wearing my braces for the prolonged work of NaNo.

NUTRITION

As much fun as it to think about gorging on chocolate, drowning in caffeinated drinks, and getting blotto on booze, we all know that really isn’t the way to go. Sorry.

This kid will be snacking on fresh veggies not because I’m a goody-two shoes but because I can’t afford to gain anything in November but 50,000 words. I’ve lost 25 pounds so far (pauses to take a bow) and can’t do anything to jeopardize my progress. If this is not an issue in your life, go for it and have a piece of chocolate for me.

ERGONOMICS

The setup of our workstations either helps or hurts our bodies. The older we get, the less forgiving our body when it is being mistreated. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. It plays a role in preventing RSIs and other musculoskeletal injuries. For more information on modifying your workspace to fit your needs check out this document.

Four Point Checklist for NaNo Newbies

With National Novel Writing Month only three more sleeps away, I’m getting excited. According to Chris Baty, over-planning often back-fires. So to avoid catatonia, hardening of the intentions and rigor mortis aka writer’s block, I’ve done far less planning. I hope to ride the wave of spontaneity and flow this sort of disciplined, daily no-holds-barred practice encourages.

This also means I feel a sense of urgency as the clock winds down. One upside of leaving things so late is the hope I can sustain the momentum I’m building. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

As a first-timer I’ve sought advice from those who have gone before and adopted what makes sense for me. I’ve also done some navel gazing to figure out what is likely to ensure my success and make the adventure a blast. Whether my ideas are any good remains to be seen–and probably long before November 30th ticks by.

For what it’s worth, here in loosely chronological order, is what I’ve done to prepare in four key areas.

WRITING

  • Committed to the idea and started telling people my intention in person, by email and through Twitter.
  • Turned up the heat on an idea for a novel that’s been simmering on the back burner for a few years.
  • Fleshed out the five main characters by giving them physical attributes, history and most importantly some flaws.
  • Distilled into a few words what challenge each of them will face as the book unfolds.
  • Created an over-sized index card (do they still make those 5 x 8 cards?) for each character with a summary of all the pertinent physical and life details such as age, occupation, family, challenges, et cetera.
  • Created a larger one-page multi-coloured summary page giving me a one-glance look at all the character facts. This might ensure the characters end the book with the same names and life details they started with.
  • Did a v-e-r-y brief chapter outline. My plan includes a prologue, a chapter setting the stage, then chapters for each of the five main characters. Because seven chapters in a 50,000 word novel seems a mite skimpy, this bright idea might need reworking. I can’t wait to see how I resolve this.
  • Spent an afternoon researching those aspects of my characters’ problems that I don’t already know. For example, my passing knowledge of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) wouldn’t have carried me far enough in the believability department.
  • Figured out how to start the story on Day One and decided to use a prologue to give the reader some back story before plunging into the action.
  • Registered at the NaNoWriMo site.
  • Picked a working title and wrote a short synopsis to add to my NaNo profile and because knowing what the book is about is a good thing.
  • Printed out the email from NaNo with the Map to November which lays out some tips and milestones for the month-long journey.

TIME MANAGEMENT

  • Wrote a slush pile of pieces for my weekly online column From Where I Sit to take the pressure off during November.
  • Avoided scheduling any extras during the month.
  • Practised saying No to those requests that are counter-productive to my goal.
  • Continued reading/rereading books that are similar to what I’m aiming to accomplish.

ATMOSPHERE                                                                         

  • Reorganized and re-shelved the stacks of books in my office and elsewhere to minimize the visual clutter and allow me to find what I need the same day (!) I need it.
  • Put away some of the junk, er good stuff on my desk to create a blank palette for all the creativity to come.
  • Have candles for mood setting, music to establish a beat, and a talisman or two on stand-by for good ol’ fashioned luck.

AUDACIOUS ATTITUDE

  • Have cultivated a can-do attitude. The fact others have done it means it is possible for me to do it too.
  • Believe I’ve done all the planning and preparation I can.
  • Know in my gut that I have nothing to lose and infinitely more to gain by going for it.

Is Your Office Helping Your Writing?

BEFORE

Is your home office helping or hindering your work as a writer? Is it a source of joyous efficiency or claustrophobic chaos? Does it need a mighty purge or a tiny tweak?

It’s easy to get paranoid about these things when everywhere we turn there is someone telling us what to do. And why. And how.

Professional organizer Peter Walsh has his own TV show to tell us about the evils of clutter.  Weekly hour long episodes of ‘Hoarders’ and ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ expose mental illness and drive the point home in tragic and graphic detail. Organizational tools, strategies and devices are widely available at every price point to help us get control of our stuff. Dream makeovers of home offices are the stuff of home improvement magazines and television programs.

Hello, my name is Hazel and I’m a collector. My office is packed with books, art, mementoes and ephemera. Peter and his kind would be apoplectic if they saw it. Many are items I selected and paid for; others are items gifted by people dear to me. Others are simply found objects that appeal to me.

Why do I collect rocks or feathers during my walks down our country road? As a visual artist I am drawn to things that are beautiful or functional. As a writer I am training my eye to notice, to see, to record. Where possible I am collecting a visual reminder. It helps my memory and my eye.

When the time comes in my current book to describe the wind blowing through the dry golden cat tails in the ditches abutting our farm I want to be able to do it well. I can describe the delicate wings of a dragonfly only because I have a corpse on a bookcase shelf.

But that being said I am increasingly irked by the visual overload surrounding me. I am annoyed because sometimes I can’t find the title I need in my excellent resource library. Or it takes an inordinate amount of time to put my hands on it. During a more anal retentive (or it that organized?) point in my life I had the books arranged by author and life was good.

 As a book junkie I have volumes on many areas of interest: grief and bereavement, birds, rocks and gems, home decor, self improvement; not to mention hundreds of fiction titles.  I’m willing to concede that I may not need them all within my sight line. So I guess they will continue to reside throughout the house in bookcases and on most flat surfaces.

Much as I love the affirmative message of the words on my walls (write, believe, dream, imagine) maybe they are core deep now and no longer needed. Maybe the CDs could make their way onto the iPod. Maybe I don’t need to buy another pen or journal or lovely piece of stationary until I’ve used up every last one I already own.

Then again what’s to be gained by throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Maybe this girl needs that oil painting of a Puerto Vallarta street scene as inspiration. Maybe the Buddha and hits of red scattered around the room warm my heart and I would be lost without them.

Getting my home office to work for and with me is no simple matter. It’s an evolution. Today I can only commit to purging what no longer serves me and reorganizing what should be serving me better.

AFTER

What steps will you take today to turn your office into a writing incubator?